5 ways to photograph castles, monuments and ancient ruins

5 ways to photograph castles, monuments and ancient ruins

Cover image by Conor Molloy

5 top tips for taking competition-worthy photos of incredible old buildings, structures and standing stones often found within stunning landscapes

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Historic Photographer of the Year calls on photographers to explore and capture the best historic places that the world has to offer.

Whether it’s a ruined medieval fortress, a secluded religious sanctuary or an Iron Age earthwork, historic sites are among the most stunning and provocative places to photograph on Earth. 

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From grand castles and imposing stately homes to crumbling ancient cities and lonely standing stones, the world is awash with historical ruins if you care to go searching for them. They can be tricky to photograph, but you don’t have to travel far and wide; there are likely some castles, churches, abbeys and ruins close to where you live.

Before making a big trip abroad to a ‘honeypot’ site, practice your skills locally, but do check opening times, car park fees and entry fees ahead of time. Here are some of our top tips to get you started…

1 Capture castles in context

Is the castle on a hill overlooking an epic landscape? Is there a moat around it? Is a drawbridge its visual highlight? Although castles are traditionally seen as grand military structures that were designed to be imposing, they were usually built in places that gave the inhabitants wide-ranging views and early site of any approaching invaders. Many are also surrounded by landscaped grounds. Either way, try to capture the connection between a castle and the environment it exists in.

If you want to get a castle in context then consider using a wide-angle lens, which will enable you to get more into your composition and keep it sharp. Depending on how wide-angle it is you may be able to approach the castle and capture it from close in while still placing it in its environment.

Rainbow over Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland
Try to capture the connection between a castle and the environment it exists in. Photo by Daniel Springgay - f/11 | 1/40s | ISO 100
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Before you start shooting take a stroll around the grounds, getting a feel for what’s around and what you might want to include in your shots. Resist the temptation to start shooting immediately; take your time and investigate the site for details you might want to emphasise. Read about the building’s history, if only to decide what the most important structures are, and how they're normally photographed. 


2 Give standing stones some space


There are thousands of prehistoric circles, standing stones, henges and burial chambers throughout the UK and Europe, yet they can be difficult to photograph. A lot depends on what’s around them; some are surrounded by flat grassland while others are on peninsulas, on tops of peaks, or nestled in forests. Your position is everything since standing circles, for example, don’t tend to look much more than a bunch of stones unless it’s captured from above, or at least an elevated position on a nearby hill.

The sun setting through the ancient Callanish standing stones in the Outer Hebrides.
Position is everything when it comes to monuments like standing circles, experiment with different angles and vantage points so you can find the perfect composition that gives the monument justice. Photo by Conor Molloy - f/13 | 1/13s | ISO 200
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Do your research before you visit, not only about the monument’s environment, but about theories on its history and function. If you’re going to photograph a burial chamber that’s aligned with the rising Sun, consider visiting at sunrise to shoot a ‘sun star’ shot. You can do that by using a large aperture and a slow shutter speed. 


3 Create an unusual composition

Looking for something that no one has seen before in an ancient monument, and getting the shot right, is difficult. But it’s what good photography is all about. Sometimes it can be something as simple – at least in retrospect – as capturing a reflection and turning it upside down (see above). Another way to treat this same shot could be to capture it at night and have stars reflecting in the river.

Find interesting items for the foreground of your image. Vary your height; take shots from low to the ground for an unusual point of view. Look for leading lines in walls, pathways, drawbridges and corridors.

While the wide-angle shot has likely been done before many times, where you can do something new is with close-ups. So pack a zoom lens, which will allow you to isolate architectural details from crumbling walls to rusty door handles. Try to shoot through a window or upwards where the roof used to be. 

A shot of the Taj in India taken from across, and reflecting in, the River Yamuna
Avoid clichés and find a way to put your personal spin when when photographing well-known landmarks. Photo by Peter Warson - f/8 | 1/250s | ISO 200
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Look beyond the cliches. The photos on the postcard or guidebook cover and the ones to avoid, not the ones to replicate. If there are lots of visitors, avoid getting them in your photos by watching where they’re going and heading to the other end of the site. It can also be worth finding out if the monument in question is illuminated at night; if it’s not you could try some long exposures that include stars or possibly, in summer, the Milky Way.

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4 Wait for an unexpected event

A legion of photographers have taken shots of Stonehenge at day and at night. Sure, there are literally 360º opportunities to take something different even from a distance, but they mostly end up looking very similar.

So wait for something genuinely different to happen in the sky above. That could be an eclipse of the Moon or the Sun, or it could be something not predicted by science at all, like the arrival of a comet. That happened for just a few weeks in July 2020, with savvy photographers heading to the old stones to get a shot of Comet F3 Neowise. For many it was a simple repeat of a shot they had mastered years before, but with the added bonus of a space rock hurtling through the sky above.

Comet Neowise over Stonehenge, UK
For a truly spectacular shot, wait for a rare or unexpected event taking place near over the the place you want to photograph - such as when Comet Neowise was seen over Stonehenge in 2020. Photo by Ben Sasson
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If the sky above is all-important when photographing monuments from afar, the weather is your friend. If there are clear blue skies a polariser will enhance them and also help reduce reflections. Clouds can often be exaggerated to seem like a bubbling storm. Sunrise is a great time to be at ancient monuments, not least for the possibility of rising mist, which can add an ethereal dimension to your inherently mysterious subject. It also maximises your chance of being there alone. Close to sunset you may spot crepuscular rays in the west. 


5 Get off the beaten track

Head to Angkor Wat, the Colosseum, the Pyramids or Machu Picchu and you’ll have to constantly battle crowds, queues and restrictive opening times. That’s going to reduce your chances of taking original shots. The more popular they are the less likely they are to allow in tripods, while some ban photography altogether (or charge extra for photography permits). Better to head to lesser known, but equally as dramatic sites where you’ll have lots of time and the place to yourself.

Circular Inca ruins at Moray in the Sacred Valley near Cusco, Peru
Get off the beaten track to find lesser-known monuments where you'll have the place to yourself. Circular Inca ruins at Moray in the Sacred Valley near Cusco, Peru. Photo by Jeff Kraft - f/5.6 | 1/200s | ISO 200
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Although most famous monuments have something lesser known and just as picturesque close by (such as Beng Mealea north of Angkor Wat, and Kuélap, Llactapacta and Choquequirao close to Machu Picchu in the Sacred Valley), you can find UNESCO World Heritage Sites sprinkled throughout the world. 


DON'T FORGET: COMPETITION OPEN FOR ENTRIES

Historic Photographer of the Year calls on photographers to explore and capture the best historic places that the world has to offer.

Learn more and enter your images via the link below.

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